Some years ago W.B. Yeats wrote a poem called Sailing To Byzantium (1928), and one of the verses goes this way:
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from of any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
We Christians have always held the doctrine of individual souls and private salvation, which presupposes a ground of private identity and individual responsibility. But the Western world has laterally taken a turn in a very different direction, due entirely to the effects of new media. Private individual identity can no longer be taken for granted in the high participation world of the Internet and interactive technologies. In this situation, even the idea of private salvation loses much of its meaning and its interest. Electric media profoundly challenge the very foundations of individual identity each time they transform us into mass audiences. The base of private identity is rapidly becoming irrelevant to contemporary experience throughout the west.
The new electric mass audience has eight major characteristics and I want to present those now:
The Mass Audience is invisible. Composed as it is of de facto intelligences with no bodies. The average person daily uses interactive media from telephone to Internet by being transformed into bits of electric information. This disembodiment parodies the condition of angels, and it contributes to the disorientation that people feel in the material world.
Minus the physical body, the user of electric media can be in two or two dozen or two million places simultaneously — everywhere the Internet reaches, in fact. The electric crowd lives as if already dead. Consequently it finds nihilism natural. Death as a way of life, has a familiar ring to those who follow the news. The enabling environment for the electric crowd is the totality of electric media present and operating via broadcast, or network, or satellite, and so on. So there is the radio crowd, and the TV crowd, and so on. All of these are, as it were, dialects of the mass audience.
The Electric Crowd, composed as it is of new nomads, who haunt the metaphysical world, cannot have distant goals, or directions, or objectives. Those matters pertain to becoming, and the nomad is involved rather with being. Being is not an objective or a goal. With no outer physical body, the mass audience shifts its focus inward. For example, for over forty years youth have consistently rejected long-range goals and objectives as irrelevant.
This move inward also appears disguised as narcissism, but it is the narcissism or the selfishness of one without a self — rather different from the selfishness that attends private individualism. Fixed goals and becoming belong to incarnate existence; the electrified nomad is wrapped in the ecstasies of sheer being, bereft of all traditional ties to the natural world and to natural law. In other words, we are floundering, we are disoriented. Each new technology represents one or another modulation of our humanity.
People without physical bodies use participational imagery to generate the emotion and the aesthetics of being — the only reality left after leaving the physical body and the physical world behind. Advertisers a generation ago shifted their attention from products to image, from hard selling of things to participative forms such as lifestyle ads. These provide life fantasies and group identities for all. Mass audience is not characterized by rationality, although individual members of it may be rational. Online or on the air, minus your physical bodies, you put on the corporate body, you wear all mankind as your skin. Under these conditions, a private sensibility would be a terrible liability.
The quality of image adjusts the degree of participation. A “good” image allows a lot of participation in depth, by a big diverse mass. For this it must be virtually devoid of content. The aesthetic of these circumstances derives from manipulations of being. Each new electric medium brings with it a new mode of group being, a new we. Hybrid energy bring the biggest kicks of all, and it is in the nature of electric media to hybridize endlessly. Each new medium collects older ones as what we call features, even as it becomes included in the others as a feature, a process that will continue until all have become features of each other. Their future is features. Gadgetry. Narcissism for the self-less.
The crowd of electrified nomads has no natural boundaries. It o’erleaps all natural and physical limitations. It is exempt from natural law.
The Mass audience was coined, the term, to denote broadcast crowds. Sheer speed makes the mass, not numbers. At electric speed there is no moving to or fro, the user just manifests here or there, having left the body behind. “There” might be the other side of the room or the other side of town or the other side of the world – it makes no difference, it’s all the same. You function in more than one place at once. On the air, you can have your being in thousands or millions of places simultaneously. Physical laws no longer apply once you leave the physical body. There is nothing on which to base them. You become information. You become an environmental image. Anyone who goes online becomes thereby, a de facto node of the worldwide network. This is not an unfamiliar form. Our worldwide net then has its center everywhere and its margin nowhere.
Another parody here: recall the medieval notion of God as having being everywhere and as being nowhere circumscribed. The worldwide network presents a state of complete equality, an equality of nobodies. There is no owner, nobody owns the net, nobody is in charge, there’s no head office, and every user can say with all fidelity, “I am every man” or, “I am legion.”
The simple omnipresence of everyone on the worldwide net has some curious consequences. Of a sudden, every culture on earth finds itself present in every country or nation. Every culture becomes multinational. And for the same reasons, the reciprocal also applies: every nation instantly becomes multicultural, despite any and every effort to the contrary. Not everybody responds favorably to being invaded by foreign cultures and mores. The Islamic terrorists clearly regard it as a form of toxic pollution of their culture and of their spirit. Obviously, terrorism is a media ecological concern. As is well known, violence is always a factor in establishing, or sustaining, or retrieving an identity.
The last characteristic concerns the impact on identities. Now we believe that each of us is endowed with an individual soul since conception, and the concomitant, an individual conscience. The private individual with a private self is also charged with private responsibility for his or her own actions and quests for private salvation. The alphabet literally paved the way for these matters.
These are New Testament times. The Old Testament, for example, had declared the Jews a chosen people: group salvation. St. Thomas gives us the formula for individuation. He frequently observes that the principle of individuation is matter necessitating a material body. To separate the mind or soul from the body is to mime death. It is generally accepted that any separation of the two, mind and body, results in death. Electric media disturb the natural union of mind and body at the deepest level. They take the user out of nature in a pantomime of death. The new sensibility brings a new fascination with death and the hereafter increasingly seems here and now, not hereafter, and encourages the growth of nihilism and amorality.
Doesn’t this illuminate somewhat our culture’s present infatuation with euthanasia and abortion? A generation ago we awoke to a new awareness of the body: it had suddenly transformed into a programmable machine with replaceable parts, a kind of art form to be shaped and molded and enjoyed aesthetically at will. The new reality, which we all accept without question, is this: on the air, on the telephone, on the Internet, you are, you have being in many places simultaneously. These are literally out of body experiences and they are casual, utterly unremarkable features of everybody’s everyday life: and they pull the rug out from under individualism. Cyberspace is the home of the group, not the individual; its natural mode is the hive.
Look at the ease with which the kids put on and shed personas, in video games as easily as on YouTube, on Second Life, MySpace and Facebook, RPGs and LARPs. They can revel in role-playing because their senses of identity are very fluid and subtle. Role-playing is first nature to them, not second nature; it’s first nature. Individualism, which results from the intellectual separation of knower from known, is a specific function of the phonetic alphabet. The alphabet, and words and language and utterance, works through the left hemisphere of the brain. Individualism too is a function of the left hemisphere, and comes from the phonetic alphabet. No other form of writing, syllabary or pictogram, has the fragmenting power of the phonetic alphabet. Its message of objectivity and detachment laid the ground for private individual awareness several centuries before Christianity had need of it.
Now that ground has been supplanted by one that does nothing to encourage or sustain individualism. We know that you cannot simply add a new medium to an existing situation. In the nature of formal cause, each new medium simply engulfs the existing situation and reshapes it from top to bottom. Media are not additive, but transformative. Today, as each new medium penetrates the worldwide net, it transforms the world. Any new medium is a new culture looking for a host.
The above was a presentation given by Eric McLuhan on September 2, 2010 7:00 pm in Edman Chapel, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, USA and can be watched here (23:30-37:18). Transcribed by Read Mercer Schuchardt.